The fourth Murray Kempton Award competition for undergraduate journalism (for the 2010-2011 academic year) had solid contenders in each category. CUNY student journalists clearly are learning the crafts of reporting, writing, analyzing and working with the Web, as they grapple with issues on campus and in the world at large. As journalism morphs in unexpected ways – and in a year when digital media helped change countries across the globe – it is comforting to see students preparing for 21st century journalism by sharpening time-tested skills.
Judging was blind to the extent possible. With printed material, the judges read uniform, plain-text submissions that lacked identifying information about the writer or, except where it was evident in the copy, the college. With Web-based submissions, it was sometimes obvious who had entered the competition, but we concentrated on what was on the screen, not the personalities or sources. We discussed the submissions thoroughly until we reached consensus.
Here is a brief discussion of the factors in our decision-making:
The contest rules say “the journalistic work must be about matters of importance to the college community, interpreted broadly.” Evaluation criteria include “originality; creativity; clarity in presentation; readability or audio/video storytelling; enterprise in reporting; journalistic significance, and accuracy of spelling and grammar.”
We also looked for stories that expanded our understanding of issues. Writers looked on campus, around the city and abroad as they explored topics ranging from homelessness to an unsanitary school cafeteria, from prostitution to improving a dangerous intersection, from a circus workshop to a mosque tied to terrorism, from a rising jazz musician to a rising campus social network.
This year’s winners included one (for commentary) that grew from a campus conversation among students from Africa; two (for news and features) that appeared in student-run, community-based journals; and one, for Web design, that houses one of those journals. (In previous years, winners and contenders came from both campus newspapers and journalism class assignments, as well.) We encourage future entrants ambitiously choose their topics.
The judges favored stories that showed in-person reporting. These days, it is easy to pull information off the Internet; working journalists use the Web as a resource, and sometimes what’s online is the point of a story. We favored writers who interviewed sources, burrowed into facts and personally saw what was happening – and where that was not possible, clearly identified what sources were used. An in-person perspective can factor in commentary, as well; that’s one reason why Murray Kempton’s columns often rang with immediacy.
Hoping to encourage a wide variety of future submissions, we decided to break with tradition and cite some other stories that we considered.
NEWS: The competition’s criteria for a news story are that it “presents the facts about a timely issue. It contains reliable, attributed information, is comprehensive and clearly separates fact from opinion.”
“Apartments Crumble on Kelly Street” by Matthew Perlman, a Hunter College junior last year, is a vivid and well-researched account of sadly common conditions in rundown housing in New York City. With heart and insight, the story takes us inside rat-infested Bronx apartments whose owner mortgaged them and vanished with the money, leaving tenants to live in decay. In clear and economical language that uses quotations with punch, the story provides context, quoting a Housing Court judge, citing city violation notices and sketching what the city and a private social service agency have done to help. The article appeared in the Hunts Point Express.
Other contenders included stories covering tenants suing a bank to force repairs, also by Perlman; an ambitious “toy library” for toddlers and parents by Stephanie Litsas, a Hunter College senior last year; a forthcoming school based on urban agriculture, also by Litsas; a drive to convert denim jeans into insulation by Brigitte Fixler, a Queens College senior last year; a look at how politically driven federal budget cuts would affect a local mentoring program for inner-city students by Wen Hao Wang, a Hunter College junior last year; and a hard-news description of how a youngster died in a fire while trying to save his brother by Alisha McLean, a Queens College senior last year.
ENTERPRISE/FEATURE: The contest rules say an enterprise story “typically takes a broad look at a topic, presenting the ‘big picture’ behind a news event. A feature is a human interest story, often not related to a timely event.”
“Recycling to Survive, Some Face Abuse,” by Basilisa Alonso, a Lehman College junior last year, offers a heartbreaking look at homeless, undocumented immigrants who survive by gathering cans and bottles and cashing them in for the five-cent deposits. The story is broadly sourced, using not only interviews, but also statements from public agencies. It sketches the plight of homeless New Yorkers, legal and not, providing context for the tale of the central figure, who crossed the border illegally almost 20 years ago and saw police arrest his brother as they were on their way to redeem cans. The article appeared in The Bronx Journal.
Other contenders included stories about immigrant, illegal day-workers, or “jornaleros,” also by Alonso; a profile of an African-American, Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn resident by Leslie Anselme, a Brooklyn College junior last year; and a look behind Hunts Point’s Halloween parade by John Oros, a junior at Macaulay Honors College and Hunter College last year.
COMMENTARY: The contest rules for commentaries state: “Encompassing both editorials and personal columns, commentary expresses personal opinion. Good commentary offers crisp analysis of a problem or situation, discusses it with a clear point of view, and may offer solutions.”
“Kaptain Afrika: A Call to Serve” by Ngozi O. Onuoha, a City College junior last year, is a lively call for action by young Africans to channel their innate strength to peacefully improve the conditions under which so many Africans live. The writer’s passion is clear: “Greed … has kept politicians from changing the conditions of the continent’s people, keeping water from house sinks, light from bedroom lamps and healthcare services, from mothers preparing to give birth.” The judges hope that her plea will be heard. The column appeared at www.face2faceafrica.com.
Other contenders included an analysis of the firing of Queens College coach Tom Flahive by Will Sammon, a Queens College junior last year, and a look at commuting by bicycle by Scott Klocksin, a Hunter College senior last year.
WEB PUBLICATION: The contest rules state: “Fast-evolving digital ‘new media’ provide exciting ways of packaging information and stories via websites and blogs that incorporate streaming audio and video, slideshows, podcasts, online communities and more. This category recognizes outstanding utilization of one or more of these media.”
The Bronx Journal website, www.thebronxjournal.com, won for its Web design. Created and managed by many Lehman College students in a workshop that is part of the college’s Multimedia Journalism Program, the site features text (news stories and blogs), broadcast and multimedia stories that concern Bronx residents; the site is multilingual (Chinese, French, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish). The judges were impressed with its clean design, ease of navigation, scope of coverage (from upcoming events to sports, culture and opinion) and ambition, which appears to be to meet Bronx residents’ need for essential local information. The Bronx Journal’s faculty advisors are Christine McKenna, Miguel Perez and Elaine Rivera.
The judges also compliment the Web design of www.wccr590am.com by Bernie Dalberice, a CCNY junior last year. It reflects a hip-hop, youth-oriented visual and organizational sensibility.
There were no entries in the video documentary/photography category.
Each of us judges had the privilege of working with Murray Kempton, two as colleagues at New York Newsday and one as a “fellow worker” – in Kempton’s gracious phrase – reporting alongside him for other newspapers. We feel confident that he would have been proud to lend his name to this competition and to these three winners. One of the things Murray often said about New York Newsday was that he found himself re-energized by the enthusiasm of the young reporters working there. We think he would have felt the same way about these students and these entries.
Sheila McKenna, senior editor, CUNY Radio
Tom Robbins, Investigative Journalist in Residence, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
Neill S. Rosenfeld, curator, the Kempton Awards